Tough Times On Denali (by Michael Engelhard)

At the Talkeetna airfield, Laurent and I gulp down balmy air, staring in disbelief at a world that wallows in tender greens around the parked Cessna.

After stuffing our faces with real food at the McKinley Deli, we amble to the bunkhouse for a shower. A glance at the half-blind mirror convinces me that I’ve lost ten years and about twenty pounds on the mountain. We relish water hot enough to raise welts before charging the historic Fairview Inn like polar explorers would a mirage. But wonder of wonders: this safe haven does not dissolve. I open its hefty door to find the place packed, though it’s only four in the afternoon. For a minute I just stand immersed in cigarette smoke and warm humanity, flabbergasted by the den’s atmosphere. The current of voices, the clinking of bottles and glasses overlaid with women’s laughter, the bellowing of climbers glad to be alive, run contrary to the mountain’s composure. Climbers outnumber the locals, working hard on hydration. You can tell who is outbound from who just returned. The latter look burnt, raw—reduced, somehow, to an essence. I try to read failure or success in ! the lined faces. Regardless of outcome, Denali has honed edges in everyone, edges that cut into new and lasting truths.

The rounds keep coming, and I don’t know who’s buying. By the time dusk—or what passes for it near summer solstice—dims the windows, our waitresses have kicked off their shoes and no longer run tabs. As the home planet wobbles precariously on its axis, racing back toward winter, I become nauseous. Before I leave, I catch sight of Laurent atop the bar. Weaving like a bamboo wand in a gale, he plants a miniature Swiss flag on the summit of an oil painting of Denali, having a tough time with it. But till dawn at least, for him and for others in here, merrymaking will cloak memories lodged firmly as ice screws, of a body laid out in a black rubber cocoon at 14,200 feet.

This is an original work posted by permission from the author. This work is not to be reproduced or replicated in any form without the express written consent of the author.


Michael Engelhard lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, working as a wilderness guide in the Arctic. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and his most recent book—Wild Moments—is a collection of encounters with northern wildlife.

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